Travel guides on Cambodia invariably draw a stark contrast with Thailand. Readers
are told not to expect the same emphasis on sex, that Khmer women are shy and innocent.
The sex industry is small and, what there is, grew up in response to UNTAC's presence.
But those who dig below the surface often find a diametrically opposed picture. One
could argue that Cambodia is a sex-mad society.
It is very important to understand Khmer sexual attitudes if programs to contain
or limit AIDS and population growth are to be effective.
The Thai experience - where AIDS took off in three short years - is a salutary indicator
of the real risk facing Cambodia. Three years after the epidemic began, 33 percent
of HIV-positive women had been infected by their husbands - a staggering ratio compared
to intravenous drug-users (six percent) and prostitutes (20 percent). Potential parallels
for its speed in Cambodia are uncomfortably close.
Cambodia's so-called "population time bomb" is the other cogent reason
for trying to understand Khmer sexual attitudes. The dynamic of present growth rates,
which are probably low estimates, show Cambodia will have a population of 20 million
within 25 years.
Currently the country cannot ensure basic necessities for the bulk of its nine million
people . It has always needed external support for its budget deficit and will face
an inexorable problem raising living standards if it is to avoid social unrest. All
this within a time-frame of half a generation or less.
An important study, Men are Gold, Women Cloth initiated by CARE Cambodia and available
next January, shows that a number of fundamental Khmer cultural attitudes towards
sex and their resultant behavior will make tackling these two issues extraordinarily
Khmer society gives prime importance to the male and places the woman in a subservient
role. In practice, men are considered able to determine their destiny and are allowed
wide discretion. Women, on the contrary, are seen to be dependent on circumstances.
The family is the central micro-economic unit which is strengthened through judicious
marriage. The prime factors for the latter are potential spouse earning-power, standing
in the patron-client community, and social respectability. Most marriages are arranged
The contractual element is uppermost, with romantic love and physical attraction
low on the list of required attributes, although virginity is highly-prized.
A single woman is perceived as an incomplete person. She is under considerable pressure
to remain "pure" and sexually-ignorant until marriage. Her premium lies
in keeping a respectable home, successfully managing the finances and rearing children
- preferably boys.
The general lack of sexual attraction as a reason for marriage, together with the
emphasis on sex for procreative purposes, leads to a fatalistic acceptance that men
will naturally seek sexual pleasure elsewhere.
Coupled with this is the widely held view that men have an unquenchable sexual appetite
which has to be gratified through frequency and variety. As wives are often incommoded
(menstrual cycle or pregnancy), or having lost their bloom through early child-bearing,
it is accepted that men should have girl friends and regularly visit prostitutes.
Married women are rarely unfaithful but then how could they be? They are not expected
to go out alone and, moreover, the potential loss of respectability in a "know-it-all-society"
makes the risk too great.
Compounding the wives' situation is the strong belief that they should not display
sexual experience or personal desire. This is fatally associated with two ideas:
that continued condom-use implies doubts about marital fidelity; and that condoms
- when used at all - are for pleasurable, illicit sex; not something to do with a
There is no place in Phnom Penh where a woman can obtain advice on sexual techniques
or even to talk about sex openly.
The majority of men of all ages - beginning with a boy's sexual initiation around
15 years - regularly visit prostitutes and have multiple partners.
In a wide-ranging sample, 58 percent of men reported two or more sexual partners
in the previous two weeks. Two Khmer sayings typify the attitude: "All Cambodian
men but monks visit prostitutes" and "Ten rivers are not enough for one
The sex industry encompasses highly-expensive night clubs and hotels, dancing and
floating restaurants, massage parlors, mini-hotels, "sweetheart" cafes
and ordinary brothels, of which there are over 260 in the capital.
The industry is organized at two distinct client levels based on price, with foreigners
and the wealthy paying between $30 and $80 for services. At the lower end of the
market, prices average around $5-$10.
Excluding ancillary associated factors, like alcohol sales and pimps' commissions,
the Phnom Penh sex industry generates between $7-$10 million a year currently.
Khmer male sex attitudes, while somewhat extreme and infantile in their insistence
on the right to untrammeled gratification, are little different from most male fantasies
the world over.
Here, again, economic reasoning suggests that only a two-pronged approach would be
likely to dent the prejudice against condom use. One is AIDS education, the other
to limit the number of children to what each couple can realistically afford, particularly
if they want their next generation to materially better their lifestyle.
The key is with women's perceived role in society. Chou Ta Kuan, the Chinese chronicler
of Cambodian customs in the 13th century, noted female sexuality and the acceptance
of their need and right to take lovers after only a four day absence of their spouse.
Today, partly through the ending of Cambodia's previous isolation, the impact of
UNTAC, the return of expatriate Khmers and the growth in video parlors, the beginning
of change among women can be noticed.
This suggests one can question the extent to which existing sexual values are really
entrenched. They may well be closely correlated to the inordinate number of unattached
females relative to eligible males at present. In which case, the near future may
show they are not impermeable. Nevertheless, for the moment they must be taken into
consideration however antediluvian they may appear to Western eyes, and ways devised
for using them to bring about any desired results.